With the establishment of MAAT for Contemporary Dance in 1999, Karima Mansour became the founder of the first independent dance company in Egypt’s history.
One of the most established choreographers in Egypt, Mansour’s latest work is “Nomadness, recently performed at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC as part of “Arabesque, a series highlighting Arab female performers.
Mansour sat with Daily News Egypt to discuss her latest work and the challenges facing the contemporary dance scene in Egypt.
Daily News Egypt: What is your relationship to Egyptian contemporary dance, given that you perform so much in Europe and abroad?
Karima Mansour: Well, performing only in Europe and never in Egypt is not a choice, it just happens to be the situation for now. I performed a lot in Egypt from 2000 to 2004. Since 2004 I have not been performing in Egypt mainly due to the fact of being an independent artist, not working with the government, therefore not easily having venues to create visibility for [my] work.
I don’t like to force ‘Egyptianess’ to the work; it is already there in my physicality, even though I am trained in the West. But I cannot escape who I am, so I am not worried whether it is related or not. The work is more an expression of an idea or a wish to dialogue without necessarily relating it or putting a flag on it.
Do you view yourself in a canon of Egyptian contemporary dance?
Yes and no. I take technique and strip it away of references, really try to appropriate it, to me. So it is neither ballet nor folklore, where you are restricted to a certain kind of vocabulary, but where the idea generates the movement. In that very particular way, I don’t feel I am an extension.
In Egyptian art there was a rise and fall, but in regard to dance in general, I feel maybe I’m playing a small role in changing it, reconnecting with the body and physicality, which is very present in our culture, but has been subdued for many reasons.
I’m thinking about groups like the Reda Company who had much groundbreaking to do regarding Egyptian stereotypes about dance.
Do you feel like you’re still up against those struggles?
I think it is an ongoing battle. It is related to art in general, because art and artists – of course I’m generalizing now – are not taken very seriously. When I used to tell people what I do, they’d be like ‘Yes, but what do you really do?’
Then you get into the fact that it is a form that uses the body as an instrument. But when you think of it, we’ve had dance since the Pharaohs. The Ottomans brought in belly dance, and we have all these folklore dances, so it’s been a really ongoing relationship, but then there is this gap.
Something happened to this relationship. It just fell into the abyss.
Your latest piece, ‘Nomadness,’ is about breaking out of traditional forms. I see this also as a very Egyptian conflict.
In all of the works I’ve done, and it’s not intentional, there is always this working with constrictions, whether it’s a constricting idea, space, or object.
In regard to ‘Nomadness,’ it’s also about breaking from the frames of this spectator-performer relationship, which is something I’m also faced with a lot because I perform abroad. People say ‘this is an Egyptian artist who’s going to give a dance performance,’ so a lot of people think they’re going to see belly dance. When they don’t, they can get very disappointed. There’s always this reaction that the audience is coming in with baggage.
The whole piece for me started when I was having a conversation with a choreographer. At one point, he looked at me and said, ‘You know Karima, we’re talking now, and I keep telling you things, but all you’re telling me is yes, I want to plant trees in the desert.’ Like I was being really stubborn. These words somehow really hit me. It was a huge image, full of conflict, full of movement, and also partly true. So it’s about a character who would like to plant trees in the desert.
In a 2002 interview, you commented on the fact that the Minister of Culture has never attended a performance of yours. Has that changed?
Unfortunately not. Not only has it not changed, I was just saying since 2004, I have not performed in Egypt, which I think is a bit sad. I hear, ‘It’s not important, maybe you need to find different venues to show your work; it doesn’t have to always be in a theater,’ and I totally agree. But my point is, an artist should have the choice. To be pushed in a corner, this is what I have a bit of a problem with … but I think things are starting to change.
Can you comment on the notion that independent artists here are not collaborative or supportive of one another?
I agree. And I think it will take time, because if we talk about contemporary dance in Egypt, it’s still young. We still don’t have the schools or infrastructure for [it] to develop. Most theaters and festivals are state-run and you’re only allowed to perform if you’re working for a governmental company.
I think the efforts are very individual-based at the moment because of many reasons. First of all, because we – and we are really very few people – come from completely different backgrounds; some are trained, some are not, some just starting.
There is also a lot of mistrust. We have to face and analyze it to understand why it is there. I am hoping that it will change. It is the only way that the independent scene – that scene is here and they cannot ignore it any more – will continue. It is essential that we swallow our egos, really look at the bigger picture and collaborate together. After a while, if you work on your own there is a certain point you will reach and you will not be able to go further.
Without that I really do imagine one might feel like a tree in the desert.
Ten years ago when I started, there was nothing. Nothing. There were the two companies at the Opera and that was it. So if you ask me from 1999 to date, it’s a huge difference. There is really a community. It is a bit divided and dispersed, but there is a community.